The Paradox of Optimism

I’ve long thought of optimism as one of the finest qualities a person can have; a characteristic I aspire to embrace more completely. I think we’d all agree that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But there can be times when the very optimism that buoys people up can turn to their disadvantage, or in extreme cases, their demise. I was in a class last week that started the wheels turning in my head when I heard the remarkable story and words of an incredible man. His name: James Bond. James Bond Stockdale, rather. This guy is a real-life hero to look up to.

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James Stockdale is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to ever be held captive in a prisoner-of-war camp. After being shot down in 1965 during the Vietnam War, he was taken to the Hoa Lo prison, euphemistically known as the Hanoi Hilton. Tortured to unconsciousness over twenty times during his nearly eight-year stay was not the worst of what this man suffered. He and his comrades were placed in solitary confinement, in leg irons, for four years. At first he was kept in total darkness, then with a light on that was never turned off. This alone would be enough to drive a person insane.

When told by the guards that he’d be put on parade to demonstrate how “well-treated” the prisoners were, Stockdale cut his own forehead with a razor blade. The guards just washed him up and covered his head with a hat. Determined not to become an object of propaganda, he beat himself in the face with a stool, disfiguring himself until he was completely unrecognizable. This is the part of the story that absolutely floors me. I’ve heard many examples of those who’ve found the strength to endure the worst kinds of torture imaginable at the hands of others, but this man deliberately inflicted his body with great pain on a matter of principle!

When asked by Jim Collins (author of Good to Great) how he made it out alive, Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” The defining event of his life. To me this means that what he went through actually created his character, and that who he became as a result was so precious that, if it were possible to be given the choice, he wouldn’t have traded those eight years for any other experience. Wow. Wow. Wow!

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Collins then asked about those who didn’t make it out of Vietnam. Stockdale was quick to reply, “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale, however, had no expectations as far as timing. He said he was prepared to go on for twenty years. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

At first glance, this really to be a paradoxical idea. How can you really hold to the belief that you will prevail, while simultaneously confronting all the negative aspects of reality? If you’re being truly realistic, isn’t that mutually exclusive of a faithful, optimistic attitude? I do not believe this is so. And I think it all comes down to what your optimism is rooted in. Those optimists who died in prison had set for themselves arbitrary timelines of when they hoped to be released. They had no evidence that their particular timeline was valid enough to pour all their faith and hope into. But they poured it out anyway, and when the timeline proved to be invalid, they had no faith and hope left to sustain them, so they gave up.

Stockdale, however, placed his faith in the end of the story, knowing he would eventually prevail, while acknowledging that the timing was totally outside of his control. This is true surrender. This is real faith, not superficial optimism masquerading as such.

I’ve seen shallow optimism often, and it has always bothered me, though I could never articulate it as well as others can. English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that this type of optimist will “defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, ‘My cosmos, right or wrong.’ He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing everyone with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world.” These are clearly not the kind of optimists that add value to the world.

I also like what a speaker named Bruce Hafen said of another type of superficial optimist: “Every new day is probably going to be the best day they ever had. These cheerful ones are happy, spontaneous, and optimistic, and they always manage to hang loose. They are able to weather many storms that would seem formidable to more pessimistic types, though one wonders if the reason is often that they have somehow missed hearing that a storm was going on.” It’s interesting that some people are so attached to a certain point of view that they will actually blind themselves to anything that apparently contradicts it! But, if this extreme is to be avoided, should we then embrace pessimistic realism? Hafen continues:

It is not much of a choice to select between a frantic concern with perfection and a forced superficial happiness. Both perspectives lack depth, and their proponents understand things too quickly and draw conclusions from their experience too easily. Neither type is very well prepared for adversity, and I fear that the first strong wind that comes along will blow both of them over. This, I believe, is primarily because their roots have not sunk deep enough into the soil of experience to establish a firm foundation. Both also reflect the thinness of philosophy untempered by common sense. In both cases, it would be helpful simply to be more realistic about life’s experiences, even if that means facing some questions and limitations that leave one a bit uncomfortable. That very discomfort can be a motivation toward real growth.

So what does this look like? How do we be optimistic while still holding common sense and seeing life for what it really is?

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I think the answer is found in the words of a man I dearly love, Gordon B. Hinckley:

“Stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that we ‘accentuate the positive.’ I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, … that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.”

It’s definitely possible to be in the heart of the storm, recognizing it fully for what it is, but carrying the absolute knowledge that the storm will end and the sun will come out again, even if we have no idea when that will be. Even better, we can look for the benefits in our personal “storms” and recognize the ways in which these situations are shaping us and accelerating our growth into individuals rich in character.